WASHINGTON—According to a study by the Pew Research Center the number of Middle Eastern countries experiencing sectarian violence between religious groups has doubled from five to 10 since 2011.
The research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities and that Christians faced persecution in growing number of countries in the region.
In this climate of religious intolerance, experts say nearly one million Christians have been displaced from Iraq, half a million have left Syria, and Egypt’s Copts have lost scores of their churches to arsons. In Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity, the number of Christians has been dwindling for decades.
“At one time, it was estimated that 25 percent of the citizens of East Jerusalem were Christians, now they are less than 2 percent,” said Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.
She also says political developments and discrimination have for decades caused the decline of the Middle East’s Christian population.
“The formation of the state of Israel in 1947 resulted in displacement of Christians in the Galilee, which was mostly a Christian community, and then the 1967 war pushed out more Christians who were living near Jerusalem,” she said.
“Lebanon's civil war in 1970s forced a lot of Christians to leave," she added. "The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in pitting sectarian groups against each other, and, recently, when the Islamic State [group] took over some areas in Iraq and Syria, Christians were given options to convert, leave, or die.”
In some cases, discrimination against Arab Christians made them feel unwanted and pushed some to emigrate, she said.
“Everywhere, with the exception of Lebanon, there is an established state religion; in Egypt and Iraq, for example, the state religion is Islam. In Syria the president has to be a Muslim, so Christians felt they are a minority and they are not represented in the government or the state bureaucracy.”
Appeal for Iraqi Christians
Considering the magnitude of the decline of Christian minorities in the Middle East, some Christian leaders are appealing to the world not to remain indifferent.
In recent months, a military drive by Islamic State militants targeted Christians in Iraq, destroyed numerous ancient Christian sites and demanded that followers of the ancient Yazidi sect choose between conversion to Islam or death. Thousands of Yazidis fled into the mountains, leading to a U.S.-led assault on the militants and giant humanitarian mission to save them from starvation.
“What has happened to Iraqi Christians, along with other minorities, is terrible and horrific … therefore, we need urgent and effective international support from all the people of good will to save the Christians and Yazidis, from extinction,” said Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, president of the Assembly of the Catholic Bishops in Iraq in an open letter released on August 24.
The letter calls into question the West’s “moral and historical” responsibility toward religious minorities.
As Islamic State militants seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, Christians were asked to convert to Islam, pay a special levy for non-Muslims, or forced to flee to avoid death.
Iraqi Chaldeans, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, left their cities and villages in droves. Sako said he fears Christian life eventually could come to an end in the region.
“In 10 years there will perhaps be 50,000 Christians left in Iraq,” he said. “Prior to 2003, this figure was about 1.2 million. Within 10 years we have shrunk to a community of perhaps 400,000 to 500,000 Christians.”
The Reverend Refaat Bader, president of the Center for Catholic Studies and Information, in Amman, Jordan, said Christians are facing discrimination throughout the Middle East.
“All Christians of the Middle East suffer from a wide range of discriminatory practices, whether in their constitutions or laws and social pressures,” said Bader. “Every time a constitution specifies that Islam is the official religion of the state, Christian citizens are not treated equally.”
Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, said Christians have become prey for militant Muslims.
“The U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in a decade of unrest, which allowed for the rise of radical groups like al-Qaida in Iraq and then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “Christian communities were targeted by radicalism that led to a historic disaster for these communities.”
Salem said that the Arab Spring rebellions spurred religious intolerance that has added to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
“In the absence of organized political life and real political elites, Arab populations suddenly empowered with no political experience, religion became the only haven where people could meet and develop their identities," said Salem. "And desperate, angry, and unemployed youth are more likely to take things to their radical extremes. Political Islam also has considerable financing from networks in the oil-rich gulf states, which are generally politically and religiously conservative.”
Christian future uncertain
Still, Salem is hopeful the decline of the Christian population could be stopped by ending the civil wars, reestablishing law and order, and fixing flaws in laws and constitutions.
“Christians in Egypt – the largest Christian population in the Middle East – went through a very difficult time during the one year of the Muslim Brotherhood rule feeling like second-class citizens. But they now feel much more secured with the new constitution, which gave them clear protection and rights to representation,” said Salem.
Analyst Haddad is so pessimistic about the future of the region’s Christians, however, that she is writing a book titled Vanishing Christians of the Middle East.
“Everybody thinks I am exaggerating, but I really think that eventually, if things continue as what is happening now, Christians will all leave,” she said.
Salem did said there is a historical lure, though, for some Christians to remain.
“They are not going to disappear from the region, they might disappear from certain areas here and there, but they are tough people and so attached to their land, history and identity – and they were in the region before Islam arrived – and they are there to stay,” he said.